The mysterious nature of twins — particularly identical twins — has been a devious source of curiosity and fascination in Hollywood for time immemorial. It’s a subgenre with surprisingly long legs: William Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors back in 1594. Audiences have been captivated by identical twins through endearing comedies about reuniting twins, thrillers about mistaken identities, medical horrors, quirky dark comedies, and everything in between. For a group that makes up just 0.4 percent of the world’s population, identical twins have enthralled the general populace.
Depictions of identical twins vary wildly, from warm and loving to calculated and distanced. It’s common that these twins are deeply troubled, with one suffering under the shadow of the other. Sometimes they’re in perfect unison — others, they’re diametrically opposed. If there’s one thing just about every single one of these films can agree on, it’s that nobody schemes like identical twins.
With identical twins poised to take over again courtesy of the Rachel Weisz–led miniseries Dead Ringers, here are the essential identical twin films: movies that paint a compelling mythology of these intrinsically linked beings. The Prime Video series is, of course, an adaptation of David Cronenberg’s mesmerizing ’80s film. While brilliant, that only scratches the surface when it comes to identical twin movies. Whether creepy or charming, they’re bound to get under your skin.
Most stories about identical twins fall into the genres of horror or comedy, but A Stolen Life, one of the earliest twin movies, opts for sumptuous melodrama. Curtis Bernhardt’s swooning, soapy film stars the GOAT Bette Davis as Kate and Pat Bosworth. Kate is self-effacing and gentle, while Pat is bold and ostentatious, getting any man she pleases. Jealous of Kate’s new beau, Bill (Glenn Ford), Pat steals him away, marrying him. But when tragedy strikes, Kate takes an opportunity to get the love she’s always longed for.
Though the sisters have indistinguishable hairstyles, Davis instills her characters with completely distinct personalities without being over-the-top about it, in ways only a master can. Brilliantly employing lighting and shadows to bring the twins together on-screen, A Stolen Life is a classic Hollywood film that establishes so much of what was to come for the genre: mistaken identities, living in your twin’s shadow, and just how difficult it is to exist without — and with — one another.
A man is dead, and there’s a suspect: Terry Collins (Olivia de Havilland). But, when the police discover Terry has an identical twin, Ruth (de Havilland), things complicate. After their arrest, the twins are left with little choice but to enlist a study by Dr. Elliott (Lew Ayres): “I’d like to add you to my collection,” he tells them, an early signal of society’s commodification of twins, treating them as what they are and not who they are.
One of the earliest films about identical twins, Siodmak is clearly working out the kinks of guiding the audience to who is who: de Havilland is often wearing a necklace that says either Terry or Ruth, or a lapel with an L or R. It’s a bit silly, but the context of the scientific inquiry makes it more practical, even though the doctor swears up and down that he can tell them apart.
The special effects are hugely impressive, always completely convincing that there are two Olivia de Havillands (what a world that would be). The Dark Mirror also provides a showcase for what a great talent can do in a dual role. Olivia is a marvel, delivering not one, but two distinctly brilliant performances, no doubt inspiring plenty of actors to take up the challenge of playing identical twins in the future.
Another movie about identical twins played by Bette Davis? Hollywood made a lot of mistakes in its early days, but having Bette play dual roles twice was not one of them. Dead Ringer (not to be confused with the ’88 film) provides a much more menacing opportunity for Davis than her previous foray with twins.
This time around, Davis plays the wealthy Margaret, estranged from her twin, Edith (also Davis), for nearly 20 years. Edith can’t pay her bills, and with an eviction notice hanging over her head, she enacts revenge upon her sister, killing her, and assuming her identity. It’s a pretty concrete plan, as nobody can see the difference between the twins, but Edith has a much more difficult time assuming her sister’s life than she thought. Paul Henreid’s Dead Ringer is a creepy exploration of how identical twins survive without each other. A high-strung melodramatic horror with a whisk of camp, Dead Ringer understood its market — namely Baby Jane fans — and delivered in spades.
Starring real-life identical twins (and Playboy Playmates) Mary and Madeleine Collinson, Hammer’s Twins of Evil takes us to a town run by the brotherhood led by Gustav Weil (a tremendous Peter Cushing). This group of puritanical men gets their thrills from “cleansing” their environment, namely by burning women at the stake for crimes like breathing and simply existing. If you can believe it, there’s an even bigger evil at play: vampire Karnstein (Damien Thomas), who kills women for the fun of it.
In Twins of Evil, the sisters are diametrically opposed — Frieda (Madeleine) dives headfirst into evil, entwining herself with Karnstein, much to the dismay of innocent, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly Maria (Mary). Frieda longs to stand out and is instantly bored of her new small-town life, while Maria finds comfort in the monotony. But regardless of what they’re looking for, the twins stand out in every way, from their bubbly personalities to their bright, revealing clothing — at least in comparison to everyone else. Much of the tension comes from a true identical twin staple — mistaken identities, as nobody in town can tell which sister is which. Vivid, detailed sets and a crazy action-packed climax give Twins of Evil its bite.
Brian De Palma is a master of style, and his chilling Sisters is one of his most formally thrilling. Sisters examines the lives of previously conjoined twins: Danielle, a model hoping to become an actor, and Dominique (both Margo Kidder), every bit as beautiful, but a great deal shyer, preferring to remain in the shadows. One day, Dominique ruthlessly murders Danielle’s fling Philip (Lisle Wilson), in a scene that makes truly inspired use of split screen, a De Palma staple. However, a neighbor across the way, Grace (Jennifer Salt), witnesses the killing. As a reporter, Grace is determined to get to the bottom of things, though she’s going to have to uncover seriously sinister secrets along the way.
De Palma’s film is a masterful construction of twin identities, particularly the terrifying way separation anxiety manifests itself through formerly conjoined bodies — and whether or not twins ever truly leave each other. Though be warned, you may never want birthday cake ever again.
Undoubtedly the strangest film on this list, though that’s hardly a surprise considering it’s from the mind of auteur filmmaker Peter Greenaway. A Zed & Two Noughts follows twins Oswald and Oliver (Brian and Eric Deacon), left reeling from the sudden death of their wives, who died in a car accident. Both zoologists, the pair become obsessed with death and decay — particularly through watching animals decompose. They also strike up a psychosexual relationship with Alba (Andréa Ferréol), the woman who was driving their wives. Greenaway is careful to mark a clear distinction between the twins — at the start, they’re easy to tell apart, but as their obsession grows, they become more and more alike.
A Zed & Two Noughts lulls you into its hypnotic spell, and Greenaway’s painterly shot compositions and lurid color scheme are a sight to behold. It’s not easy to shake this phantasmagorical exploration of trauma, nor its haunting images of decomposing animals.
Jeremy Irons gives his career-best performance as Elliot and Beverly, a pair of successful gynecologists who run a Toronto practice together. David Cronenberg’s disturbing, macabre masterpiece opens with the twins as children doing experiments and asking another child to have sex with them in their bathtub for science. (“Fuck off, you freaks,” she rightfully retorts.) As adults, the pair share patients as well as lovers without anyone knowing. “You haven’t had any experience until I’ve had it too,” Elliot tells his twin. Beverly ends up doing something he’s not done before — falling deeply for one of their patients/lovers, actress Claire (Geneviève Bujold). When she discovers the truth of their manipulative natures, everything gets considerably more twisted — as if that was even possible.
The film explores the idea that twins have a sort of symbiotic connection and the parasitic relationship that entails. As the film tagline says, “Two Bodies. Two Minds. One Soul” — in other words, can these men possibly survive without each other? Dead Ringers studies identical twins at their most conniving, manipulative, fetishistic, and twisted. That Cronenberg manages to convey so much humanity in these men is what makes the film unforgettable.
An update on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Jim Abrahams’s Big Business has not one, but two sets of identical twins. A frazzled and overworked nurse makes a mistake and separates the twins from identical sets to fraternal ones. (If a film has ever stressed why nurses need to be well-paid and taken care of, it’s this one). Present-day Rose and Sadie Shelton (Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler) run a (you guessed it) big business that wants to turn a country town into a strip mine, but the Rattliff “sisters,” who are also named Rose and Sadie (Tomlin and Midler) go to New York City to stop them.
Most separated-at-birth twin stories find the twins meeting almost immediately, but Big Business keeps the reunion until the very end, which allows an endless series of increasingly improbable near run-ins to occur. It’s all thoroughly ridiculous and very, very silly, and a total blast. Tomlin and Midler more than capably carry the film — Tomlin is especially wonderful as the deeply paranoid Rose. Plus, where else can you find Midler singing while milking a cow, and the most exceptional mirror sequence since Duck Soup?
Double Impact says to hell with showing identical twins as creepy, devious pairs, replacing them with two Über-muscly, ass-kicking hunks. The film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Chad and Alex, two long-separated twins brought together to get revenge on the people that killed their parents. Thankfully, despite the separation, they’ve both managed to achieve peak physical form. While it’s commonplace to see twins eager to make up for lost time and excited to form a powerful new bond, Double Impact deals with the opposite: What happens when two brothers want absolutely nothing to do with each other? It leads to a technically impressive and cleverly executed scene where JCVD brawls with himself. Filled with epic fight scenes and ridiculous one-liners (“You don’t know which side of the bread is buttered do you, you silly little bitch”), Double Impact offers up a double dose of ’90s action bliss.
Here’s something that may blow your mind: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen aren’t actually identical twins; they’re fraternal. Still, they look identical, and that was enough to inform the concept of over a dozen films starring the pair. The cream of the crop is 1995’s It Takes Two, which blends The Prince and the Pauper with The Parent Trap to great effect. When orphan Amanda (Mary-Kate) meets ultra-wealthy Alyssa (Ashley) at summer camp, they agree to swap lives to get a glimpse at each other’s lives. It’s a nonsensical, cotton-candy confection of a movie, served up with a thick slice of ’90s cheese.
Most of these films explain — or over-explain — how these twins were separated at birth, but not It Takes Two: We’ll never know why or how these kids got separated, and frankly, it’s all too sweet to even care. It’s all brushed off with a “nothing’s impossible” and a thumbs-up. It Takes Two is so sweet and lovingly performed that I’m inclined to roll with it.
Lindsay Lohan became one of the world’s most in-demand child stars after her revelatory performance in Nancy Meyers’s The Parent Trap. The incredibly charming film finds Hallie and Annie (both Lohan) having a chance encounter at summer camp. At first, they’re enemies, engaging in a ludicrously fun game of exchanging pranks. Before long, they realize they’re separated identical twins, and become besties. They devise the ultimate plan to get their parents back together — assuming each other’s lives to get their parents to fall back in love.
Aided by a terrific supporting cast (especially Lisa Ann Walter and Elaine Hendrix), The Parent Trap brings together everything we love about identical twin movies: scheming, mistaken identities, and a whole lot more scheming. Sure, there’s the 1961 version, also lovely, but it’s sorely lacking the incredible presence of Lohan. An added bonus? There are pranks in this movie that would blow away the cast of Jackass.
Nicolas Cage gives one of his finest performances as both Donald and Charlie Kaufman, identical twin brothers who are both screenwriters. Though they look and dress similarly, their approaches couldn’t be more different. Charlie strives for perfection, and to create something nobody else has done. He’s been hired to adapt a book by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) but is suffering from an unbearable case of writer’s block. Donald, on the hand, has no vested interest in art — fortune is all he is after. And he gets it, and quickly, selling a script for $1 million in the proverbial blink of an eye.
Directed by Spike Jonze and written by the real Charlie Kaufman, Adaption is a resplendent and unpredictable odyssey. It’s a massively compelling exploration of artistic integrity, a study of self-loathing, as well as a treatise on what it means when the man who’s supposed to be your equal — your exact — has everything you lack and has managed to find success in ways you could never even dream of.
At first, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending drama about rival magicians desperate to outdo one another doesn’t seem to be about twins at all. But, the movie’s shocking twist — its “prestige,” to use magician parlance — reveals that it’s been about twins this whole time. Magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), like the audience, is astonished to discover that his competition, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), is actually a set of identical twins — and that’s how Borden pulled off the extremely complicated Transported Man trick.
The Prestige is a thrilling and effective sleight of hand, reveling in its use of identical twins as a last-second shock: a dirty little secret best left in the dark, wielded by these brothers who live in the shadows to pull off the ultimate illusion. Here, twins are more a device than definable characters, kept at a distance. But that doesn’t make the film any less spectacularly entertaining.
Edward Norton shines as two extremely different twins: Bill, a philosophy lecturer at Brown, and Brady, still living at home in Oklahoma, selling drugs and deep in debt. They haven’t had any interaction in years, but when Bill receives word that his brother was killed, he returns home, only to finds Brady very much alive. Bill has been roped into yet another one of his twin’s grand schemes.
Actor Tim Blake Nelson, who wrote, directed, and stars in Leaves of Grass, deserved better than its middling reviews and dreadful box-office performance. This is a twisty, funny, and surprising movie with great work from its dynamite cast, from Edward Norton and the wickedly delightful Richard Dreyfuss, to Keri Russell, Melanie Lynskey, and Susan Sarandon. Its portrayal of identical twins who are polar opposites largely stands apart from the crowd, but like the others, Leaves of Grass taps into the seemingly symbiotic relationship identical twins possess. No matter how far you go or who you become, it’s impossible to escape your destiny.
A film that ups the ante from identical twins to identical triplets, the only thing that’s more unbelievable is the fact that it’s an entirely true story. Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers is aware of the compelling nature of its subjects but refuses to treat them with the distanced curiosity of most identical-twin movies. It’s a sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of the self, and particularly what it means to discover you have a sibling you never knew existed — not only a sibling, but an identical one, and not only one brother, but two. It’s an intriguing look at our fascination with twins, as Eddie, David, and Robert became media sensations after their discovery became newsworthy.
There’s no sugarcoating in Three Identical Strangers, nor any comical schemes: This is a raw, challenging, and endlessly fascinating look at real-life identical siblings and the effects of being thrust into the spotlight.
Based on a riveting true story, Agnieszka Smocynska’s The Silent Twins takes a surprisingly radical approach to identical twins onscreen. Instead of casting real twins or using CGI to have one actor play dual roles, the film instead casts two different people as June (Letitia Wright) and Jennifer Gibbons (Tamara Lawrance). It’s a surprising choice that feels jarring at first, but it’s a wise decision that changes the way these identities are portrayed. Instead of an opportunity to gawk and marvel, The Silent Twins presents these two sisters — who retreated inside themselves and spoke only to each other for years — with a sense of complete individuality and autonomy. A methodical, artistic expression of forging your own way that’s both dark and uplifting, this may just be the future of representing identical twins onscreen.